If you measure the stature of politicians by how they rise to the occasion, then the leaders of the Scottish opposition parties revealed their restricted growth at Alex Salmond’s last outing as First Minister.
This was an historic moment. The man who had dominated Scottish politics for much of the last two decades, who won the first ever SNP election, went on to win a landslide and then came very close to winning independence, was leaving the Parliament he had made his own.
Yet Labour and the Conservatives treated it as a routine opportunity for point-scoring: the best Jackie Baillie could do was chide the First Minister for not answering her questions.
In their failure to recognise the significance of the event they revealed their continuing lack of self-belief. Many Scottish politicians still don’t know how to behave as though they are in a real parliament because they don’t believe it is a real parliament.
Alex Salmond always behaved as if he were in a real parliament, and that will perhaps be his most enduring legacy. His Labour predecessors didn’t dare even to call themselves a “government”. Salmond made the Scottish Parliament believe in itself, and helped the Scottish nation rediscover itself.
If most Scots now take it as self-evident that Scotland could become one of those successful countries like Norway and Denmark which combine economic dynamism with high levels of social solidarity, then it is largely down to Alex Salmond. He stopped Scotland thinking of itself as a region.
This is all the more remarkable because he did it in the midst of a banking crisis and the near collapse of many of the small nations like Iceland and Ireland, which he had described as the “arc of prosperity”. Or arc of insolvency, as it became known.
Yet the financial crisis somehow washed right over Salmond and his government. This was largely because it was governing as a minority, rather than as a top-down majority. It had to fight to win every vote, and sometimes it lost – as in the ill-fated Edinburgh Trams venture, which the SNP opposed but had to accept after Parliament voted for it.
After the 2011 landslide, the Scottish Government lost some of its enthusiasm for “the new politics of co-operation and compromise” and started behaving like a conventional government – as if it owned parliament, instead of the other way round. The SNP took over the committee chairmanships and started pushing through measures like the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill which were personal enthusiasms of the First Minister.
However, the second Salmond administration wasn’t really about legislation, but about the referendum. During this period, Scotland underwent a transformation. For the first time in its history it developed a serious political independence movement.
As Salmond said in his final speech to the SNP conference, Scotland was “changed, changed utterly” by the referendum: 1.6 million Scots decided to reject the fear agenda of the Westminster parties and vote for independence.
That was a formidable achievement, and something no-one could have predicted when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed by Salmond and David Cameron in 2012. Except, of course, by Salmond who never lost confidence in his ability to persuade.
Of course, the Yes campaign lost, and some say Alex Salmond contributed to its failure because of his inflexibility on the currency issue, his “top-down” approach to the campaign, and his unpopularity with women.
Certainly, Salmond’s outing in the first TV debate was a near-disaster. But no-one could have come back from the dead as strongly as he did to win the second.
And will the comeback kid come back again as an MP in Westminster? He keeps talking about holding the Westminster parties’ “feet to the fire”, and even said in his conference speech that he was as much of a threat to Westminster as Guy Fawkes. He has been teasing us about this long enough.
If he doesn’t stand then he will incur derision as well as disappointment in his followers. The SNP desperately want to see him lead a phalanx of Nationalist MPs to Westminster next May, and even perhaps hold the balance of power in a tight UK General Election.
But would a Salmond redux overshadow Nicola Sturgeon? He nearly did so at the conference. Every time his name was mentioned it provoked a standing ovation. Some in the First Minister-designate’s circle are a little uneasy about Salmond having a new power base in Westminster. Imagine if the SNP did win the General Election in Scotland and Salmond held the future of Westminster in his hands. He could command the UK media’s attention and might start to look like a king over the water.
But one suspects Sturgeon is big enough to allow Salmond his second coming (- or is it third or fourth?) She will have enough on her plate with the 2016 Holyrood election. Salmond will be a very hard act to follow, and while she has many advantages – being a woman is one of them – she can’t expect to be able to fill his shoes right away. Her conference speech was sound and forcefully delivered, but she lacked Salmond’s wit and rhetorical sweep, his sense of history. Of course, she has yet to make history herself, but she has plenty of time to grow into the role.
She needs to be tested, as Salmond was in the fire of controversy and crisis. She needs to reshape the Cabinet in her own image – a difficult task when there are a number of male politicians who are effectively unmovable, like John Swinney.
Sturgeon will have to put some red policy flesh on the bones of her promise to promote a “true social democratic Scotland”. She promised to extend free childcare to 30 hours, but needs a few bigger ideas.
She said she would never put the Tories in government. She said that Labour, too, would have to rethink its policy on Trident if it was hoping for SNP support in a confidence and supply coalition after the 2015 General Election.
Was this a red line? If so, it could be a coalition breaker, since Labour is unlikely to abandon Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Where does that leave us? Labour will say, inevitably, that the only way to be sure of keeping the Tories out of Westminster is to vote Labour.
It will be Nicola Sturgeon’s hardest task as leader to persuade Scots that they should stop splitting their ticket – voting Labour in Westminster and SNP in Holyrood. Assuming he is in Westminster, Alex Salmond could be a crucial figure in any coalition deal-making and they will have to get their story straight in advance.
There is also the vexed question of the next referendum. Does Sturgeon break the word of her predecessor and put a new referendum in the SNP manifesto, as many of her followers would like her to do? Sturgeon must try to widen the appeal of independence to the 55% – the 2.1 million mainly middle-class and older people who voted No.
She has also to keep business on-side. Sturgeon is not in her comfort zone when she talks about economics, finance and business. Salmond was a social democrat, but he had also been a banker. Nicola Sturgeon was a community lawyer in Drumchapel.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Nicola Sturgeon is not yet First Minister – she has still to be formally elected this week. She has a golden inheritance: 85,000 members, a united party, unprecedented opinion polls, a Labour opposition in disarray.
The new SNP leader is an able politician with energy, self-discipline and a very clear mind. She doesn’t like being compared with Angela Merkel, not lest because the German Chancellor is a conservative, but she has some of the calm resolve of Merkel.
And she has bottle in abundance. When Alex Salmond said “If the Westminster gang reneges on the pledges made in the campaign, they will discover that Hell hath no fury like this nation scorned”, they’d better believe that Nicola Sturgeon is one of the furies.